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Progress in Closing the Digital Divide in California

The $6 billion included in the new budget provides both expanded broadband access and a blueprint for other states to follow

After years of advocacy and more than a few failed starts, California is finally poised to fix a gnawing problem that has divided our state and left more than a million children behind. The budget approved by the legislature and Gov. Newsom last month includes $6 billion to close the digital divide, one of Common Sense's long-standing and top priorities to ensure that all children can access the internet from home for learning, health, and social interaction.

And while there is more work ahead to ensure that the divide between those who have and don't have robust internet connections and computers at home is closed completely -- and stays closed -- this is a huge win for the people of California and for education and broadband advocates nationwide.

Like much of the nation, California state lawmakers were faced with the task of responding to the many social ills laid bare during the pandemic. One of these overarching ills, although previously downplayed, was the digital divide and its crosscutting impacts.

Prior to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, much of the digital divide conversation in California's Capitol centered around ensuring K-12 students had access to lightning-fast internet speeds at school and at home. However, over the last year, awareness grew over the impact the digital divide has on other aspects of our society and economy -- social inequity, socioeconomic mobility, healthcare and telehealth, and the other key economic sectors, like logistics, remote work, and precision farming.

And as the digital divide conversation expanded, so did the coalition in support of bridging the divide. Groups that have traditionally called for closing the divide, like those who work on education, anti-poverty, and social justice, were joined by politically influential players such as city and county governments, Native Tribal communities, philanthropists, business leaders, healthcare professionals, and others who understand the costs of a poorly connected California.

A bipartisan core of lawmakers set aim on the issue and began to work toward a solution. During the governor's 2021 budget release and subsequent updates, he laid out a plan for a statewide broadband system which addresses the three root causes of the digital divide as identified in one of Common Sense's three research reports with Boston Consulting Group: affordability, availability, and adoption.

California's $6 billion plan includes:

  • $3.25 billion to build, operate, and maintain an open access, state-owned middle-mile network – high-capacity fiber lines that carry large amounts of data at higher speeds over longer distances between local networks.

  • $2 billion to set up last-mile broadband connections that will connect homes and businesses with local networks.

  • $750 million for a loan loss reserve fund to bolster the ability of local governments and nonprofits to secure financing for broadband infrastructure.

With this huge win in hand for Californians, we are not done with our work. We are advocating for policies that support the full implementation of the new broadband plan. There will inevitably be stumbles during implementation because this is uncharted territory for a public entity the size of California. But the new broadband budget -- and the way it came into being -- provide a great example of how other states across the country can work to close the digital divide -- for good.

Do you have a digital divide story? Share it with us at [email protected]

Marvin Deon
Marvin Deon is vice president of California policy at Common Sense.